When the Providence coaching staff decided last spring that Bilal Dixon didn't fit into its plans for the 2012-13 season, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound center quickly thought of one guy he'd like to play for in his last year of eligibility.
"[Pat] Skerry was my man," Dixon said of Towson's second-year coach, a former Friars assistant. "My freshman year I redshirted [at Providence], and Skerry was the head coach of the redshirting squad. He let me play my game. We used to go at it."
Never mind that Dixon fielded inquiries from several high-major schools interested in adding a battle-tested Big East veteran at the 5. Never mind that Dixon had never heard of Towson before Skerry got the coaching job there one year before. And never mind that the Tigers were coming off a 1-31 season and wouldn't be eligible for the 2012-13 postseason because of an unsatisfactory Academic Progress Rate score. Dixon's mind was made up: he would transfer to Towson, pursue a master's degree and suit up for Skerry's Tigers.
Dixon is one of three Big East transfers and one of six scholarship newcomers in the Tigers' regular rotation. The fifth-year senior has been an integral part of the Tigers' surprising season, which concludes Saturday with the final men's basketball game at the Towson Center. With a win over Hofstra, Towson (17-13) would set an NCAA men's basketball record with a 17.5-game turnaround.
Dixon won't get a chance to play with the Tigers as they work toward the postseason next year, but his legacy at Towson will be spurning more established programs to help his old coach get a moribund program back on track.
"I'm appreciative that he came and took a chance on us," Skerry said. "I kind of liken it to a trade in the NBA. He just needed a change in scenery. He's certainly a better player from having played in a program like Providence. He's gotten himself in tremendous shape this year, and he's healthy. That was the start. He's really helped us."
A developmental prospect from Jersey City, N.J., Dixon sat out his first year at Providence (2008-09) and worked closely with Skerry in practices. As a redshirt freshman, Dixon started 30 of the Friars' 31 games, averaging 8.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. A Sporting News Big East All-Freshman team selection, Dixon seemed primed for a big career.
But over the next two seasons, Dixon's minutes and production dwindled, Skerry left for an assistant coaching job at Pittsburgh, and Providence dismissed coach Keno Davis and brought in Ed Cooley from Fairfield as Davis' replacement before the 2011-12 season. Dixon, who averaged 4.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game as a redshirt junior, said he was "disappointed" when Cooley didn't grant him a fifth year.
"His last year, he wanted to stay there, but the coach there said he was going a different way," said Umar Dixon, Bilal's father. "So we sat down [and] had a lot of different looks. Niagara, Villanova wanted to see him, Washington wanted to see him. But he went down to Skerry, [who was] building a program. [Bilal] said, 'Dad, you know Skerry is running a program down there. I could help him.' I said, 'Go ahead.' He went down to help Skerry and build the program up."
Bilal Dixon had kept in touch with Skerry via text messages as the coach moved from Providence to Pittsburgh to Towson. He didn't even need to visit Baltimore County to know Towson was where he wanted to be. Nothing about the Tigers' past bothered Dixon.
"The one win last year didn't really faze me because I knew Coach Skerry is a good recruiter and I knew that he would have some pieces that would be able to help us win," Dixon said. "The tournament bid didn't really bother me because I looked at it as, every school that's eligible doesn't make it anyway. Some people win, some people don't. I also looked at it as he's helping me get my master's. We could make it to the tournament and not win, but I can't really put that on my resume and get a job if basketball doesn't work out."
Umar Dixon, meanwhile, completely supported his son's decision, mostly because of his family's relationship with Skerry.
"Skerry was a gentleman and a friend," Umar Dixon said. "He was trying to build a program. My son said, 'Dad, he always treated me fair. I just want to return the favor.' That's not a problem for me. He could have gone to Washington or Villanova. He had some good choices. We knew all that. But he wanted to return the favor."
Starting 29 of the Tigers' 30 games, Dixon has averaged 7.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per game. He grabbed 10 rebounds and scored seven points — including what proved to be the game-winning tip-in with 37.6 seconds remaining in overtime — in Towson's 85-81 win at George Mason on Tuesday.
"I probably haven't told him this enough, but I have great appreciation and respect for him coming with us and helping us get this thing going," Skerry said. "I've certainly yelled at him a lot during the year, but I'll always have a special place in my heart for him, coming aboard with us. He was somewhat taking a leap of faith. He's done a lot for us. He'll always be considered a Tiger in my eyes, as well as a Friar."
After his college career comes to a close Saturday, Dixon plans to finish his master's degree in professional studies and pursue a pro basketball career overseas. When his playing days are done, Dixon hopes to follow Skerry's path into coaching. No matter where he lands next year, Dixon plans to keep tabs on the Tigers from afar.
"I'm going to miss this place because I feel like I did a lot of stuff here [and we] broke a lot of records," Dixon said. "But I think they'll take it to another level with the new gym, new arena, and they'll be eligible to make [the tournament]. Probably next year they shouldn't be stopped because they're just losing me. They can always add another 5-man there. … They should have a great year."
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